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Study, Work and Life


EDSIL's directors have over 60 years of experience in education between them. During those 60 years there has been an alarming growth in study-related stress in schools and universities, and student mental health problems associated with academic and social pressures are at an all-time high. This can lead to unhappy students who study less effectively and enjoyably; it can lead to more serious mental health problems like depression; it can lead to students dropping out of universities that they have spent a lifetime aspiring to enter; at its worst it can lead to students taking their own lives.

One of the persistent problems students face that helps to cause this increase in stress is a distorted view of the relationship between study, work and life. Unfortunately, it is a problem that besets much of the modern world.

Schools contribute to the problem inasmuch as they put too much emphasis upon examination-related outcomes in order to be able to market themselves as academically successful, and these trends are made worse where they cite university admissions to so-called "top" universities to parents and students as examples of their desirability. Such emphasis upon "top" universities forgets that the single most important consideration in choosing a university is whether the courses it offers and the academic standards that prevail in it are appropriate for a particular student, not, notice, students in general.

Schools often like to give the impression that because one student gets into Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard or Princeton, any student going to that school can aspire to do the same. It isn't true, and even if it were, it would not be desirable: what matters is that a university and the course of study match the abilities, interests and social confidence of a particular student. The best schools take such things into consideration; the worst don't care.

What matters is that a course of study matches the abilities, interests and social confidence of a particular student.

Any school with the attitude that "what happens to students after they leave is nothing to do with us" is failing in a major element of its responsibilities to students: the way students are prepared for their school-leaving exams bears a direct relation to how they will thrive afterwards: undue pressure; forced hothouse approaches; and a school ethos that makes academic results appear to matter more than anything else, are all deeply unhelpful and unhealthy. Schools that approach them in that way are to be avoided.

One of the key measures of a school's attitude to their students' long-term health and success is how they manage the related questions of failure and independent study. Schools that are obsessed with outstanding results in school-leaving exams frequently control their students' study right through until the last weeks before the examinations. They never give them space to learn to control their own study, to take responsibility for it, to experiment, to succeed and to fail. Consequently, students may get very good grades, but when they arrive at university, without the everyday support of parents, teachers and their peers, and without the externally-imposed discipline to study and manage their time, they find it impossible to manage their lives. The temptation to party, to do nothing, to study ineffectively, and especially the inability to think for themselves rather than merely absorb the pre-digested ideas their teachers think they need to pass exams well, produces a toxic mix of dysfunction that can easily create a destructive spiral of self-doubt, underperformance, and eventual failure.

A key question every parent and student should ask themselves in choosing a school is how well that school understands its obligation to transfer responsibility for learning to a student so that, beginning from a very early age, each student learns to learn under their own motivation and to take responsibility for managing that learning. Schools that are afraid to allow this transfer of motivation and responsibility are best avoided.

Regrettably, many schools fail this test because they are so worried about their reputation and attracting pupils that they form the mistaken view that they will be judged only on how well students do in their school-leaving examinations. Governments who publish school league tables add to this distorted sense of achievement and quality. Yet in the long-run, schools who betray the trust of their students by failing to inculcate good self-motivation and learning habits will earn a reputation for being places that produce university students who fail.

How effectively does a school manage each student's transition from external pressure to internal motivation?

One of the best indicators of the deep quality of a school is whether and to what extent it produces confident, happy, motivated students, especially during their final years at school; students who learn as they mature to take responsibility for themselves, to relate to their teachers as adults, and to own the consequences of their own actions. Students who emerge from such a school will manage the transition to university and have every chance of prospering in life as a whole.

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